| Don’t Write Alone
Toolkit How to Write a Novel (Or Anything, Really) with ADHD
Instead of fighting myself tooth and nail to subscribe to a neurotypical writing lifestyle, I’m choosing to expand upon my weird brain’s strengths and abilities.
I was recently diagnosed with ADHD (inattentive subtype) at age twenty-five, and after years of grappling with my wavering motivation and lack of self-discipline when it came to my writing, the diagnosis could not have come at a better time.
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a neuropsychological disorder categorized by inattentiveness, hyperactivity, impulsivity, and other difficulties associated with executive functioning, one of the mental processes that allocates focus and allows us to effectively plan and initiate important tasks. ADHD can cause marked impairment in both daily functioning and creative endeavors—making monumental projects (such as, say, trying to write an entire novel from start to finish) feel like impossible tasks.
I have considered myself a writer—or, perhaps, someone who deeply enjoys the craft—since I was ten years old. I can remember staying up into the wee hours of the night (sorry Mom and Dad) writing everything and anything, from bad retellings of my favorite Nancy Drew books to botched fan fiction, until I finally got my idea for my first book. For months, I worked at it—churning out nearly a thousand words a day—until it was complete. I’ve never felt a sense of pride like that before, sitting there looking at my word document with fifty thousand–plus words, a complete story.
I’ve never finished a single project since.
It’s not like I wasn’t writing. I wrote a lot (albeit less frequently, thanks to high school) and read a lot, but everything felt grossly incomplete compared to the first book I wrote. I changed my mind constantly. I never fell completely in love with a singular idea. It was like my brain was all over the place, and even though I had such fleshed-out ideas in my head, I could never translate those ideas to paper. It was as if as soon as I sat down to write, everything emptied like bathwater down the drain.
It was impossibly frustrating. I tried and tried again. I took creative writing classes during undergraduate school to help me stay accountable, but the motivation waned once I got my final grades for the semester. I joined every single online community I could think of and read every piece of writing advice I could get my hands on. Everything said the same thing, more or less: Be disciplined in your writing schedule, don’t edit as you work (thanks, inner critic), let the first draft be messy. All of it made sense to me, but none of it felt like it was ever helpful—not in the way it was for other writers I met.
While everyone was busying themselves with NaNoWriMo each year, I was still trying to figure out how to get my characters from Point A to Point B, and the frustration was slowly eating me alive. I would get almost one-fifth of the way through a working project before I would scrap it entirely for something new and shiny, and the cycle would just repeat itself until I burned out. My writing friends were editing their second and third drafts, and here I was, unable to make it past five chapters.
I told myself for years it was my fault—that I had no self-discipline, that I was lazy, that I didn’t want it as bad as the other people I admired so much. I resented myself for claiming to be a writer in the first place. My imposter syndrome was running rampant, and I felt like a complete failure. But the worst of it all was that I felt like I was letting down younger me—that ten-year-old girl with wire-framed glasses that dreamed about her novel turning into a movie adaptation someday.
Then my therapist offered me something that radically changed my life: an explanation, of sorts, of the inner workings of my brain. Tessa , she had said one afternoon, I think what you’ve been describing all these years is actually ADHD .
We had many conversations after that—about the symptoms, the diagnosis, the next steps in treatment. I started on medicine shortly after, per her recommendation. And now, nearly six months after my official diagnosis, I am learning and unlearning lots of things about myself. The diagnosis not only alleviated all of the self-doubt and guilt I had harbored over the years but also provided me with a new lens to view myself through—and my identity as a creative writer.
Now that I have come to terms with my neurodivergence, I can look back on the past season of my life with a lot more compassion and forgiveness. It isn’t my fault (and it never was) that writing was so difficult—and it makes sense now that the traditional writing advice never resonated with me. And while my ADHD does create some challenges, it also opens up a lot of doors in terms of creativity and self-expression. Instead of fighting myself tooth and nail to subscribe to a neurotypical writing lifestyle, I’m choosing to expand upon my weird brain’s strengths and abilities.
Enough about me—let’s get to the advice (and, let’s be honest, the real reason why you probably clicked on this headline).
Before I get into the nitty-gritty, I want to take a moment to preface that my ADHD presents differently than it might for you—and that’s okay! Please feel free to take what resonates and leave what doesn’t. This is not a how-to guide or an exhaustive list of writing tips, but a brief summary of the things I have realized work best for me right now.
The most important thing that I want to normalize immediately is that ADHD, contrary to popular belief, is not an issue of concentration but merely an issue of how our brains allocate our concentration. ADHD brains are (usually) deficient in dopamine and other important neurotransmitters, which means we are often seeking out stimuli in the environment that induce natural dopamine production.
This is why neurodivergent folks go through what I like to call “cycling” (there’s definitely a more clinical-sounding word for that, I’m sure), which is defined by the constant rotation of interests, projects, hobbies, foods—as soon as the novelty wears off, the brain becomes bored with it and decides to move on to something else more stimulating and fun. For writers, this is why it’s so appealing to start a new project when you have eight others left unfinished, or why you can easily pick up an old idea that’s been sitting on the proverbial shelf for a while without a second thought (“Ooh! It’s shiny!”).
Knowing all of that, it’s easy to see why sticking with one solid idea—and following it through to the end—would be a big challenge for people living with ADHD. Here are a couple of ways I’ve found success in “tricking” my brain to stay motivated.
1. Learn your biorhythms. A biorhythm, in short, is your body’s natural cycle throughout the day. We are all probably familiar with the sleep-wake cycle, but there are more biorhythms that impact our creative functioning than we probably realize. For me, sitting down and figuring out when I am the most alert, attentive, and productive was the first big change in my writing schedule and probably the most helpful tip I’ve learned thus far.
I am not a morning person by any means, but for years I tried to convince myself that sticking to a consistent writing schedule would solve all my problems. To be fair, that is pretty solid writing advice, but I was attempting to write during all of my “low-energy” periods of the day—the points of the day I felt most tired and burned-out—and then ended up frustrated and discouraged when I could barely write a hundred words. Once I got my diagnosis and realized that I needed to capitalize on my “high-energy” periods, it was much easier to sit down and crank out a chapter or two.
And yes, much like my ten-year-old self, my productive periods seem to be late at night, somewhere between 10 p.m. to 1 a.m., when the world is quiet.
Before you pass judgment for my abnormal sleep schedule, I’ll state for the record that I have always been a night owl and I am fortunate to have a career that allows more flexibility with my work hours so I’m not a complete zombie the next day. The point of this still stands: Find the points of the day that you are most productive/creative/energized and try your best to write during those pockets of time. (Writing at 5 p.m. is the same thing as writing at 2 a.m., anyway, except one of those things is socially acceptable per our society and the other is not. Who cares? You’re writing a freaking novel!)
2. Try “pantsing” a novel. The funniest thing about this tip is that I have recently learned I have nearly worked myself to death to compensate for the internal chaos that my undiagnosed ADHD was causing me—meaning I am a chronic organizer and do not, by any means, like doing anything without a concrete plan.
In the past, that meant I would create fifteen-plus-page outlines in the name of “organization,” only to close the document and never open it again because of how boring it was. The truth is, I like when things are new and interesting (and so does my brain). Now, beyond the basic plot or idea, I try my best never to plan things out in advance. I’ve found success in that it allows for more creative dialogue and on-the-spot thinking, which leaves less room for my brain to get bored or convince me that the entire manuscript is garbage and I should give up altogether.
3. Get a body double. Body doubling is the idea that you are often more productive with a certain task if you have someone near you that is also doing something similar. This is often why people find it easier to study with friends or work on things in a coffee shop or a library with lots of people around. If we look at neuroplasticity, the brain sends neurons when we experience and interact with certain stimuli that are decoded from the five senses, and sometimes just observing behavior in other people is enough to start a chain of communication between those neurons and upper-brain functioning. (Did someone say, “What are mirror neurons?”)
4. Use a reward system. Remember what we talked about earlier—about the brain seeking out dopamine? There’s no better way to stimulate dopamine production than a good old-fashioned reward or a prize. If you have something to work toward, that gives your brain both a measure of progress and a fun incentive to keep going. Make sure the goals you’re picking are both realistic and reasonable, meaning they aren’t too lofty (I’m looking at you, writer with perfectionist tendencies) or too easy. A great example of this would be to set prizes for a specified word count and to continuously “up the ante” with better rewards, such as commissioned artwork of your characters, until you reach the overarching goal of finishing a draft of the manuscript.
5. Have lots of snacks and drinks on deck. Foods and beverages can also produce dopamine, and honestly, having yummy snacks at the ready allows me to eliminate the potential distraction of having to get up for water or nourish my brain in the middle of the workflow. I recommend having a selection readily available, but at the very minimum, make sure you’re drinking lots of water.
Like I mentioned earlier, I am still in the process of discovering how my ADHD diagnosis influences my creative energy, so this list will likely expand and shift over the years as I learn more about myself. I hope that some of this was helpful to you, regardless of your personal experience with ADHD or neurodivergence—whether you’re recently diagnosed, looking into psychological testing, needing a switch in routine, or just wanting to try something new.
But most importantly, I hope this essay serves as a reminder that wherever you are in this season of writing, know that you are not alone, your work is important, and you are doing the best that you can. I’m so proud of you!
For more information on ADHD, including local and national resources, please visit the Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD) website at https://chadd.org/ .